News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Archive for March 2016

Stephen Copley Research Awards 2016: Deadline May 1st

Postgraduates and early career scholars working in the area of Romanticism are invited to apply for a Stephen Copley Research Award.  The BARS Executive Committee has established the bursaries in order to help fund expenses incurred through travel to libraries and archives, up to a maximum of £300.  A postgraduate must be enrolled on a doctoral programme in the UK; an early career scholar is defined as someone who holds a PhD (from the UK) but has not held a permanent academic post for more than three years by the application deadline.  Application for the awards is competitive, and cannot be made retrospectively.

Successful applicants must be members of BARS before taking up the award (to join, please see this page).  The names of recipients will be announced on the BARS website and social media, and successful applicants will be asked to submit a short report to the BARS Executive Committee within four weeks of the completion of the research trip and to acknowledge BARS in their doctoral thesis and/or any publication.  Previous winners or applicants are encouraged to apply again.

Please send the following information in support of your application (up to two pages of A4 maximum in word.doc format):

  1. Your full name and institutional affiliation (if any).
  2. The working title and a short abstract or summary of your PhD or current project.
  3. Brief description of the research to be undertaken for which you need support.
  4. Estimated costing of proposed research trip.
  5. Estimated travel dates.
  6. Details of current or recent funding (AHRC award, &c), if applicable.
  7. Name of one supervisor/referee (with email address) to whom application can be made for a supporting reference on your behalf.
  8. Name and contact details (including email address and Twitter handle) of whomever updates your departmental website or social media, if known. And your Twitter handle, if applicable.

Applications and queries should be directed to the bursaries officer, Dr Daniel Cook ( at the University of Dundee.  The deadline for applications is May 1st.

Five Questions: Markus Iseli on Thomas De Quincey and the Cognitive Unconscious

Markus Iseli - Thomas De Quincey and the Cognitive Unconscious

Markus Iseli holds a PhD from the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland.  He has recevied a Swiss National Science Foundation grant in support of his research; his work on the cognitive unconscious in the nineteenth-century context has also earned him the Henry-E.-Sigerist-Prize from the Swiss Society for the History of Medicine and Sciences.  He has published journal articles on his work in European Romantic Review and Romanticism.  His first monograph, Thomas De Quincey and the Cognitive Unconscious, which we discuss below, was published by Palgrave Macmillan last year as the first book in the new Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine series.

1) What first got you interested in Thomas De Quincey?

I discovered De Quincey only towards the end of my MA.  A couple of his essays from the Reminscences were on my reading list for the final exam.  He hadn’t been on any of the syllabi before, so I didn’t know much about him at the time, but the essays roused my interest.  Eventually I stumbled over the Confessions.  I began reading it during the preparations for my finals though it wasn’t on the list and rushed through it.  As it had happened to many other people before me, I was fascinated by his prose and, of course, by his story.  The autobiographical endeavour was initially at the core of my interest.

2) You select as your epigraph a quotation by J. Allan Hobson: ‘Let us break down the barriers between science and the humanities’.  What do you think are the main benefits of pulling down these barriers?

There is a great deal that can be learnt on both sides of the barriers.  Hobson is a good example of what scientists can learn from the humanities.  My experience, of course, is mainly that of the opposite direction.  Six years ago I would never have thought that I would say this one day, simply because I didn’t know much about the other side.  However, the more I read about the scientific approach to literary texts, the stronger became my conviction about the importance of that interdisciplinary perspective.  In literary studies, the barriers are, I think, to a large extent a question of sensibilities.  Cognitive science, for example, is not just about brain scans with blue and red areas that supposedly reveal the blueprint of what it means to be human, to which it has been reduced by some literary critics.  The insights may be limited, but they reveal exciting facts about the way we think and feel about things, and that’s what a lot of literature is all about.  This knowledge provides new, fruitful perspectives on literary texts.

Furthermore, today we know that science had an important influence on literary texts in the nineteenth century.  The many friendships between philosophers, writers of all strands, and scientists, who all profited from the knowledge of their peers from other fields, were crucial.  So, if modern science allows us to understand the science of the past, it also allows us to understand literary texts that make use of the scientific discourse of this period.  Breaking down the barriers allows us to come to a more complete understanding of a literary period, for which the nineteenth century is exemplary.  In more concrete terms, modern theories of the cognitive unconscious helped me understand nineteenth-century notions of the unconscious.  They sharpened my sense for instances that don’t fit into the literary theories of the past decades and provided a theoretical framework.

3) In your introduction, you make a persuasive case for many studies of Romantic psychology framing it principally in opposition to Freud.  How do you think we can benefit by considering Romantic notions of the unconscious in their own terms?

My endeavour is finding out what people in the early nineteenth century, in particular De Quincey, thought about the workings of the mind and the unconscious and how this might change our understanding of their literary output.  As I explain in my introduction, the psychoanalytic approach in literary studies fails to do this because it does not take into account historical aspects.  This, however, is indispensable to make claims about the theories of an author or to talk about the rise of an idea in a specific historical period.  It was amazing to find out about nineteenth-century theories of the unconscious that are so different to the theories that were used in the critical discourse of the past decades.  The irony, of course, is that I also needed a modern theory, that of the cognitive unconscious, to be able to make sense of Romantic theories of the unconscious.  However, I tried very hard not simply to impose the modern theories and to make nineteenth-century theories fit our modern views.  Theories of the cognitive unconscious guide my readings and analyses up to a certain point, but the claims I make for Romantic theories of the unconscious are also backed up by thorough historical research.  The award I received from the Swiss Society for the History of Medicine and Science speaks in favour of this, I hope.

4) To what extent were De Quincey’s notions about the unconscious particular to him, and to what extent were they drawn from ideas circulating more widely?

This is a crucial question in my research and my opinion changed considerably during my research.  At first I thought that De Quincey was on to something really new.  The more I looked at other authors, scientific ideas, and cultural movements, however, the more I realised that he was articulating his version of something that many other people were contemplating and investigating around the same time.  This insight does not diminish his achievements, though.  His originality lies in the way he picks up various notions that were in the air at that time, in the way he reworks them, and in the way he articulates the resulting ideas through his famous impassioned prose.  Furthermore, one of De Quincey’s achievements is the promulgation of these ideas, in particular that of the cognitive unconscious.

One point in this respect that I would love to be able to explain in more detail is the relationship between De Quincey, the scientist Thomas Laycock, and the philosopher Sir William Hamilton.  They published almost the same ideas in almost the same terms at almost the same time.  Is is clear – from direct and indirect evidence – that this was no coincidence.  But what was the direct influence, in which direction did it go, how impactful was it, and did they share the same basis for their theories?  I discovered some exciting links but I can only give tentative answers to these question for the lack of evidence.  In any case, it shows that De Quincey’s ideas were not wholly new.  They were the result of that time and De Quincey considerably helped shape the notion of the unconscious.

5) Which Romantic-period writers beyond De Quincey do you think would be particularly suited for reconsideration in light of the issues you raise in your book?

There is a range of authors that would be interesting to look at in this light, not only from that period.  Going back a little further in time, Erasmus Darwin comes to mind, who articulated similar ideas about the unconscious.  Of course the canonical authors, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge deserve attention in this respect. Thomas Carlyle needs closer attention, too.  His essay ‘Characteristics’ is full of allusions to what we now call the productive unconscious.  I hope future research will expand this list.

Five Questions: Meiko O’Halloran on James Hogg and British Romanticism

Meiko O'Halloran - James Hogg and British Romanticism

Meiko O’Halloran is a Lecturer in Romantic Literature at Newcastle University.  She has published articles and book chapters on writers including Robert Burns, Walter Scott and Joanna Baillie and touching on topics including borders and boundaries, the theatre, poetic self-fashioning, cosmic ascents and illustration.  At the centre of her network of interests is James Hogg, the subject of her first monograph, James Hogg and British Romanticism: A Kaleidoscopic Art, which was published last year by Palgrave Macmillan.  Below, we discuss her book in the contexts of her long engagement with Hogg, his positions and his legacies.

1) How did you first become interested in James Hogg and his works?

My interest in Hogg began when I read The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner the summer before my second year as an undergraduate at UCL.  The narrative was riveting and I thought the idea of telling it twice from different points of view was ingenious.  The changing narrative lenses and the open-endedness of the novel made it fascinatingly indeterminate.  It’s a novel that forces you to think for yourself and I found that incredibly exciting.

I wrote an essay on the Confessions at the start of term and listened with great excitement to Karl Miller’s lecture on Hogg; Karl had retired, but he taught a series of seminars on Romantic-era fiction that year which I felt privileged to attend.  When I later decided to write a longer research essay on Hogg, John Sutherland suggested I ask Karl’s advice.  The first volumes of the Stirling/South Carolina edition of The Collected Works of James Hogg had recently been published and I wanted to write on several of Hogg’s works of fiction.  Hearing Karl talking inside his office at the time of our appointed meeting, I politely waited until he’d finished speaking before nervously knocking at the door.  I was startled when he asked, from his chaise longue, why I was twenty minutes late and revealed that he’d expected me to interrupt his phone conversation with Christopher Ricks!  After quizzing me on why I’d chosen an author who is so difficult to write about, he eventually conceded that I “might have something to say” and advised me to focus on the Confessions.  I got a pass to the British Library reading room (then in the British Museum) and began my research.  Karl was kind enough to take an interest in reading my essay after I graduated, and over the next seventeen years, we became friends.

I’d planned to include Hogg’s work in my proposed Oxford MPhil thesis on Romantic Outcasts, but when the time came, Hogg didn’t seem to fit in!  I abandoned the outcasts and, with Fiona Stafford’s encouragement, decided to concentrate on developing my understanding of Hogg’s fiction instead.  This paved the way for my DPhil.  Little did I realise that my graduate research would eventually lead me to argue for Hogg’s inclusion in and centrality to British Romanticism.

2) How did you come to settle on the kaleidoscope as a metaphor for the kinds of art which Hogg produced?

Changeability is a feature of nearly all Hogg’s works—in his handling of literary form, genre, voice, and so on.  But it wasn’t until I returned to the Confessions to write about it in my DPhil thesis that I was struck by its kaleidoscopic qualities—in the multiple interpretative possibilities that are opened and the startling effects produced on readers’ sympathies by continuously shifting the narrative lens.  The most impressive shape-shifter in the novel, Gil-Martin, is said to have the ‘cameleon art’ [sic] of changing his appearance; it seemed to me that the novel also reconfigures its identity continuously, and that Hogg himself demonstrates an enjoyment of shape-shifting across his literary career—through his bold experiments with literary form and by playing with his own identities, as well as creating protean characters in his works.

To my surprise, I found that Hogg had been friends with David Brewster, a fellow Borderer from Scotland, who had invented the kaleidoscope at a time when they were both living in Edinburgh.  I learnt more about the features which made Brewster’s invention a sensation all over Europe in the late 1810s.  I had no idea that Brewster’s kaleidoscope was so sophisticated.  Its most distinctive feature was the huge array of choices it gave viewers.  It was up to each viewer to choose how to assemble the kaleidoscope (in its ‘simple’, polyangular, annular, parallel, polycentral, or stereoscopic forms) and to select what items to put in the viewing cell at one end (these could include beads, glass, coloured fluids, spun thread, or painted images).  If the objects in the cell were loose, the kaleidoscope could produce an infinite number of images, making each viewing unique.  Viewers were also encouraged to experiment with looking at objects outside the instrument, using the kaleidoscope in its telescopic or microscopic modes.  Hogg was fascinated by optical science—as seen in his dramatic use of the Brocken Spectre at Arthur’s Seat in the Confessions—but it’s the unpredictability of his genre-mixing and the range of interpretative choices he gives readers that makes the kaleidoscope such a fitting analogy.

Brewster’s kaleidoscope offers a model from Hogg’s day that foregrounds the flexibility and endless creativity that characterises him as a writer.  It’s tremendously helpful for reassessing Hogg’s work as both a maker and a viewer of Romantic literary culture.  The idea of a ‘kaleidoscopic’ literary practice helps us to understand Hogg’s radical literary aesthetic—his creation of textual spaces in which readers can exercise choice and play with their perceptions.  But the kaleidoscope is also wonderfully apt for defining Hogg’s art because in the act of turning the kaleidoscope, the reflections of the objects being viewed are continually realigned so that the viewer sees what was peripheral becoming central and what was central being moved to the periphery.  Hogg, who was (and is still) often regarded as a “minor” or “marginal” writer, not only shakes up, plays with, and juxtaposes existing literary genres and traditions, but also re-focalises readers’ attention through a range of narrative perspectives, some of which involve placing himself at the centre of his works.  He repeatedly repositions himself and his readers in relation to his texts in ways that force us to reassess our views.

3) What do you think are the main insights that can be gained through situating Hogg as a central figure in British Romanticism?

Hogg positions himself centrally in The Poetic Mirror, or The Living Bards of Britain (1816), and invites us to examine an emerging Romantic poetic canon both from the inside and the outside.  Crucially, here, as elsewhere, he is a critical viewer as well as a maker of literary culture.  Through his kaleidoscopic unsettling of readers’ perceptions of what is central and peripheral, his self-positioning invites us to reconsider British Romanticism itself; with Hogg at the centre of the picture, it looks more miscellaneous, expansive, and dynamically unpredictable.

Hogg was widely known in the Romantic marketplace as the author of The Queen’s Wake (1813) and many short stories, and the Ettrick Shepherd of the ‘Noctes Ambrosianae’ in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine.  By returning him to a central place in his era, we see that his inventiveness and playfulness are absolutely part of the wider Romantic practice of genre-mixing—and that, like William Blake, he is one of the most exciting and daring genre-mixers of them all.  Given that Hogg is experimenting with literary form in more invigorating and extreme ways than many of the poets in Stuart Curran’s Poetic Form and British Romanticism (1986) or other genre-mixers in David Duff’s fascinating Romanticism and the Uses of Genre (2009), it becomes clear that his work deserves substantial attention in critical accounts of Romantic formal experimentation.

Resituating Hogg as a central figure in British Romanticism also enables us to examine a much broader array of his intertextual relationships.  While it’s wonderful that he is now recognised as a major figure in Scottish Romanticism, there’s still a critical tendency to compare him with his most “proximate” models, Burns and Scott, or to pigeonhole the Confessions as a defiant reaction to the manipulation of his identity in Blackwood’s.  This critical mould tends to emphasise Hogg as a rebellious victim of the literary marketplace rather than an inventive and willing player in it, in a way that can misrepresent or reduce his creative achievement.  Examining the distinctive, kaleidoscopic quality of his work puts him into productive dialogue as well as dispute with many of his more famous contemporaries, and opens up our understanding of his agency, his flexible self-positioning as an author, and his deft use of a plethora of literary traditions.  I explore his responses to major English as well as Scottish writers, because the work of Shakespeare, Spenser, and Sterne was demonstrably as important and stimulating to his imagination as, say, that of Macpherson, Burns, and Scott, or Byron, who was half Scottish.

4) Which particular works by Hogg – beyond the obvious Confessions of a Justified Sinner – would you recommend to scholars seeking to incorporate insights from his works into undergraduate and taught postgraduate courses?

My top recommendation is The Poetic Mirror which includes Hogg’s parodies of Wordsworth and Coleridge and is brilliant for discussing canon-making and the tensions and competiveness that are part of that process.  It would be great to teach alongside the Smith brothers’ Rejected Addresses, Byron’s English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, or Leigh Hunt’s The Feast of Poets, for example.  I think Hogg’s witty mock epic about ancient Scotland, Queen Hynde (1824), would be fantastic to teach alongside Don Juan and other Romantic appropriations of the epic.  I’ve found that undergraduates and postgraduates learn a lot from reading The Pilgrims of the Sun (1815) in dialogue with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Queen Mab due to its use of otherworld journeys, pantheistic ideas, and syncretic methods.

Students who are interested in pursuing Hogg’s experimental narrative techniques beyond the Confessions should read Tales of the Wars of Montrose (1835), which is fascinatingly rich and surprisingly critically neglected; the EUP edition is available in paperback, which is helpful for teaching purposes.  Lots of the stories in The Shepherd’s Calendar (1829) and Winter Evening Tales (1820) are also full of unexpected narrative techniques and many of them draw on rural superstition and folklore in a way that’s illuminating to consider in relation to urban magazine culture, the rise of the short story, and the Gothic.  The Three of Perils of Woman (1823) is well worth studying for ideas of nationhood, the treatment of history, and formal innovation in the novel.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

My new book project examines how Romantic poets reconceptualised the role of the poet and the social value of poetry, using imagined places and otherworld journeys to confront real-world issues.  I explore how, in picking up the mantle of first-generation poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey, poets who included Shelley, Hogg, Keats, and Byron sought to sustain a radicalism of form and imagination by reconnecting with a longer poetic ancestry—which included epic forefathers, Virgil, Dante, and Milton, as well as popular ballads of supernatural abduction.

On This Day in 1816: Italy, Romanticism, and the Year Without a Summer (Part II)

The ‘On This Day’ series continues with the second part of a post on Italian Romanticism from Fabio Camilletti, who is Associate Professor at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, University of Warwick. The first part of this blog post can be viewed here.

To contribute a blog to this series about the bicentenary of a significant event in 1816, please contact Anna Mercer.


29 February 1816: Italy, Romanticism, and the Year Without a Summer, part II


Cold and Warm

The Fall of Napoleon

The Fall of Napoleon

In the imaginary space of the Classicist/Romantic quarrel, climate metaphorizes, since the beginning, Italy’s cultural specificity, resisting the tide of Northern literary fashions. Pietro Giordani, in answering Staël in the second issue of Biblioteca italiana, polemicizes against the ‘monkeys’ folly’ of those who would like to import foreign imaginaries in countries where nature ‘bids otherwise’. Romanticism, writes Carlo Giuseppe Londonio in 1817, is the literature of ‘those who are buried in snow and ice for the two thirds of the year, and to which the sun never shows itself with the fullest splendour of its beauty’, and who are therefore ‘naturally brought to see from a melancholy viewpoint all that surrounds them’: ‘their mind takes pleasure in the gloomiest ideas’, whereas ‘the lively, warm, bright-minded Italian sings nature as beautiful and smiling as he sees it around him’. Giovanni Gherardini notes in 1820 how the tempers of Northern people are ‘callous and unable to receive the soft impressions of the beautiful to which the Greeks and the Italians are so sensitive’: so rough sensibilities need ‘strong shocks’, ‘Gargantuan images’, ‘horrid objects’, ‘eccentricities’, ‘quickly changing sensations’, and ‘things outside natural laws’. In 1818, the jurist Pier Luigi Mabìl held a picturesque allocution at the university of Padua, rhetorically asking whether the ‘audacious innovators’ of Romanticism would not ask Italians to ‘abandon the pleasant and flowery Parnassus for the Hercynian forest, for the snowy and steep yokes of Scotland and Ireland’, and ‘if they, ‘accustomed to the gentle metres and to the sweet fashions of the poet from Teos [i.e. Anacreon]’, would perchance ‘give an easy and indulgent ear to the rough songs of the bards, of the skalds, of the Iroquois’, or ‘clutter theatrical stages with gallows, hangmen, skulls, sorcerers, and ghosts’. Italy, writes an anonymous editor of the anti-Romantic journal L’Attaccabrighe in March 1819, does not need the ‘barbarian’ and ‘obscure’ poetry of the Northern Romantics, because the weather – and, consequently, the aesthetic sensibility – are different. Adjectives denoting meteorological phenomena soon take on aesthetic and moral nuances:

a sky perennially bright, such as the Greek or Italian one; a most pure and tempered air, always imbued by the sweet-scenting smells of a thousand different flowers, of cedar and orange trees; such a sky will pour out of the mind of its poets joyful and pleasant ideas, full of imagination, in the same way as the soil generates through it a variety of flowers and fruits. He who secludes himself in the melancholy regions of the North, where mind and heart are both oppressed by the perennial shadows, and by the mist, and by ice, will not be surprised if the poems born in those country are gloomy, ferocious, and sad, and if the similes employed by the poets of those unfortunate climates look all the same.

The same geo-cultural opposition animates Leopardi’s Discourse on Romantic Poetry, whose apocalyptic closure explicitly equates territory and aesthetic disposition, individuating in the kind of poetry inspired by the Italian soil the only possibility for a true survival of antiquity (which, for Leopardi, is the only possibility – for poetry – to be as such). Italians, Leopardi writes, must ‘imitate this nature, and behold this sky and these fields and these hills’, for:

we are still great; we still speak that tongue before which all living ones retreat, and with perhaps would not retreat before the dead ones; […] we still drink this air and tread this earth and enjoy the same light that an army of immortals enjoyed; the fire that enflamed our ancestors still burns […]; that character that belongs to us is unchanged; it remains an inspirer of the highest things, ardent and judicious, most willing and most vivid, sweet and tender and sensitive in the highest degree, and still solemn and nonchalant, the most mortal enemy of every affectation whatsoever, aware and enamoured of naturalness above every other thing, that naturalness without which there never was nor ever will be any beauty nor grace, the yearning lover and most refined connoisseur of the beautiful the sublime and the true, and finally the most wise moderator of nature and reason.

Leopardi concretizes, therefore, a recurrent image of Classicist polemics: that modern poetry – i.e. Romantic verse – is nothing else but the prosecution, through other means, of Napoleonic invasions, aiming to ravage Italy from its last prestige, that of literature. The Romantic invasion is much subtler as it disguises itself under the (Satanic) temptations of fashion: in his later work Operette morali, of 1827, Leopardi will name fashion (moda) the sister of death; with ‘modernity’, moda shares the etymology from the Latin adverb modo (today), conveying the principle that what is new is intrinsically better than what is old.

From this angle, Leopardi shares exactly the same view as Stendhal: the breach opened by Napoleon near Milan has allowed modernity to irrupt into Italy. However, whereas Stendhal saw the battle at Lodi as presenting a possibility for reawakening, Leopardi views modernity as the most threatening menace to Italian specificity, namely its being located before modernity, before that extreme sophistication of taste that exceeds civilization, turning into barbarism. Romanticism is, therefore, the last attempt, on the part of the nations that has ‘always hated and will [always] hate’ Italy, to defeat it for good: because, ‘having defeated us when we were weak and unarmed and motionless, but always defeated in the arts and writing’, it now tries to outrage Italy’s last prestige.

Hayez Meditazione

Hayez Meditazione

Leopardi – unlike other Classicists, who often equate Romanticism, Bonapartism, and liberalism – is not interested in the historical and political dimension of the matter: the rape of Italy he is describing is not flattened to the mere contingency of French occupation, but deliberately groups the manifold invasions suffered by the country over the centuries, to the point that the image of France itself (which he never names directly) is dissolved into the almost archetypal one of a Transalpine, imperial, and foreign Europe that has always threatened Italy’s identity, and now tries to barbarize it through the ‘sentimental and poetic dung dripping down to us from the Alps, and vomited on the shores of our seas’. The natural borders of Italy have been violated, and the passing of the Alps – a Romantic trope connected to the sublime and the experience of Grand Tour  – becomes the channel by which ‘drips down’ something intimately horrid, excessive, and Northern aiming to pervert Italy’s most intimate nature.

Turner, 'Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps'

Turner, ‘Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps’

That ‘dung’, Leopardi writes, is ‘welcomed and greedily swallowed and praised and magnified’ by young Italians; ‘as soon as some odd newness appears on the top of Cottian or Noric Alps’, notes in 1816 Carlo Botta, ‘Italians immediately follow as a bunch of fools’.

Within this constellation, the most interesting text is perhaps the first answer received by Staël, initially appeared in the Florentine journal Novelle letterarie and republished in Lo Spettatore. The author, signed ‘P.L.V.’, compares Staël with Adam Müller, a peasant clairvoyant from Baden who had predicted the victory at Waterloo to an attendant of von Blücher and had met the Prussian king. Under the veil of irony, the Swiss Germaine de Staël is made the reincarnation of those German priestesses, mentioned by Tacitus, who enflamed warriors against Rome; the people who follow her are the victims of the same credulity of ancient Germans, which, as the telling example of Müller shows, still survives among the moderns:

The French journal named Débats referred on 29 February, date of Frankfurt, that a Spirit, one of the Lemures, a Genius or a Demon whatever we want to call it, has become acquainted since quite a while with a certain Muller, and that this good German, through his secret influence, makes all sort of prophecies, but especially political ones […]. Another Spirit, certainly not much different from the former, makes since quite a long time political and literary prophecies in several parts of Europe, through an old Pythoness; and it is almost sure that, after travelling the North, has now pointed towards the South, and that, having crossed the Alps and the Apennines, has now penetrated in the hearth of Italy. […] We know that by the Germans, or other Boreal peoples, women were believed to possess some divine power of predicting the future. By these peoples, therefore, the names of Veleda and Aurinia and many others were very famous: for them, these nations had a sort of worship, and kept in great value their advice and responses.

This text is overtly ironic, but the image is clear: a spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Romanticism – and it aims, as Botta puts it, to darken the ‘light’ of Classical tradition with its ‘Germanizing and Frenchy stuff’, and with ‘the mist of Caledonian moors’. As in Napoleon’s time, Milan is the most vulnerable front against the invasion: a borderline city between South and North, Milan is the place where the plague (of modernity and of central/Northern Europe) is more likely to make its entrance into the country.


Bringing the Plague

On 22 October of that year 1629, Pietro Antonio Lovato, an infantryman in a regiment located in the area of Lecco, made his entrance into Milan, with a load of clothes stolen or bought from German soldiers; and he went to stay at the place of some relatives of him, in the neighbourhood of Porta Orientale. As soon as he got there, he got sick; they brought him to the hospital; and on the fourth day he died. In the corpse they found a bubo, which raised the suspicion of plague.

Lovato enters Milan

Lovato enters Milan

In Alessandro Manzoni’s novel Fermo e Lucia, begun in 1821, the great plague of 1630 enters Milan on a specific date and from a specific gate, Porta Orientale, from whence the otherwise unknown infantryman Pietro Lovato had brought infected clothes, stolen from German soldiers. Names of streets running parallel to the former Corso di Porta Orientale – now Corso Venezia – still bear the memory of the contagion: and are named via Lazzaretto, or via Lodovico Settala, in honour of the doctor who had first acknowledged the disease to be bubonic plague.

In Manzoni’s times, another kind of plague had entered the city, and from the same route. After the forced closure of the Romantic journal Il Conciliatore, in 1819, and while he was being transferred from the Milanese prison of Santa Margherita to the Venetian one of Piombi, from whence he would be deported to the Spielberg fortress, in Moravia, Silvio Pellico remembered the glory days of Italian Romanticism:

Oh, you avenue of Porta Orientale! Oh, you the public gardens, where I had often walked with Foscolo, Monti, Lodovico di Breme, with Pietro Borsieri, with Porro and his children, and with so many other beloved mortals, talking in the fullest of life and of hope! […] When we exited the Porta, I brought my hat over my eyes and, unnoticed, I cried.

From this angle, in the topography of Milan, Porta Orientale and its Corso are remarkably allusive. Not only do they recall – as we have seen – the memory of Napoleon’s invasion and the route of Simplon, but also that of the plague and, at the same time, of Romanticism: another kind of contagion, since the arrival of which nothing will ever be the same.

Manzoni’s view of Romanticism was ambiguous. Initially, he had sided with the Milanese Romantics, for he viewed Romanticism as a salutary revolution for Italian literature: since then, he had progressively withdrawn his support, seeing – as did many of his contemporaries – the plain import of Northern Romanticism as a ‘hodge-podge of witches and ghosts’, to be rejected with the greatest severity. In 1821, while Pellico was being transferred to the Venice prison of Piombi, he began to write Fermo e Lucia – a draft and a prelude to his masterpiece I promessi sposi (1827), bearing the traces of the cultural and political conflicts animating Italy at the time.

From this angle, the emphasis Manzoni places in mentioning Porta Orientale in Fermo e Lucia is less innocent than it could seem at a first glance. In the novel, Porta Orientale is the doorway through which something innately Other enters into Milan, as a deadly consequence of the foreign invasion of Landsknechts coming from Germany.

Melchiorre Gherardini, The Plague in Porta Orientale

Melchiorre Gherardini, The Plague in Porta Orientale

Equally, in Fermo e Lucia the ambiguity surrounding the theme of the plague echoes the ambiguity with which Manzoni views Romanticism, a ‘hodge-podge of witches and ghosts’ that has nonetheless had the merit – as Manzoni writes to Cesare D’Azeglio – to sweep away the Arcadia-like and provincial junk plaguing Italian literature. Such ambiguity will remain unresolved throughout the entire course of Italian modernity, between the defence of tradition and the yearning for renovation, intellectual autarchy and foreignizing temptations: South and North. ‘This pestilence has been a curse, my sons, a curse’ – comments Don Abbondio in the ending of Manzoni’s novel: ‘but it was also a broom: it swept away certain people whom, my sons, we’d never got rid of’.

A Year in Grasmere

The post below, originally published on the Wordsworth Trust Blog, is by Anna Fleming and details the time she spent in Grasmere as part of her doctoral research.

I enjoyed unparalleled access to the archive in the Jerwood Centre. Over a fascinating morning, Jeff Cowton, Curator and Head of Learning, showed me how to approach manuscripts. It was a very practical session spent carefully leafing through DCMS15, or the ‘Christabel notebook’: a red leather-bound manuscript that contains Christabel and extracts towards The Prelude and ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar’.

Unlike my normal literary approach, we examined it as a physical object – looking at handwriting, ink, paper, folds and layout – to deduce how the book had been made and what it was used for. It made me appreciate the hard work and expense that went into aspects of writing beyond just composition, from making the paper in a paper mould, to combining oak gall, iron sulphate and gum Arabic to make ink, and binding the notebook.

I loved leafing through other treasures within the collection, such as a group of scrapbooks known as the Phoebe Johnson Bequest. From rushbearing to wrestling, dialect plays to road building, these books carefully document Grasmere’s history over the past 150 years in notes, letters, photographs, and newspaper cuttings.

To develop my understanding of the relationship between poet and community, I devoted much time to exploring the responses of local people today to Wordsworth’s poetry. Aside from insights I gathered from conversations in the pub (“why doesn’t Wordsworth write about quarrying or mining?”), I also led a number of shared reading groups in different settings. People were surprised to learn that Wordsworth could be funny, and commented,

“It’s amazing how much more you understand after you’ve discussed it a bit and re-read it”

It was a real treat to read poems such as ‘Michael’ and ‘To A Nightingale’ on dark winter evenings by the fireside in Dove Cottage. These sessions created moments when the walls that normally seal the past from the present became more porous – and suddenly Wordsworth, Dorothy and Coleridge’s existence did not seem so distant.

I also led a number of reading groups with local school children. Every Thursday, come rain or shine, I cycled over Red Bank to begin my rounds of first Langdale, then Ambleside and finally Grasmere primary school. It was fascinating to see the different ways each of these schools worked (ranging in size between a total of 48 and 110 pupils) and how the children responded to the same Wordsworth poems. A couple of the groups became particularly fixated by death, deciding their overall favourite poem on the basis of how many deaths it contained. As a result of this process, fittingly, ‘We Are Seven’ (a poem that relates a mathematical dispute between the narrator and a child) came out top:

 “I liked all the death, but I would like a little more of it. My favourite poem is ‘We are Seven’ because there were two deaths.”

At the end of the year I put together an exhibition on local people’s responses to Wordsworth’s poetry. It was my first experience of curating an exhibition: an absorbing process of decisions about content, design, label writing and evaluation, guided by the dual purposes of making it both appealing and informative. The exhibition seeks to generate responses via the ‘poet-tree’: a tree upon which people can attach their comments that are written on parcel labels.


The exhibition includes recordings from adult and children’s groups. I learnt to edit sound in order to create 4-minute audio ‘highlights’ from hour-long reading groups. The process of re-listening to the discussions enabled me to reflect on my own practice as a reading group facilitator. I noticed voices I hadn’t heard within the bustle of the session, expressing their own moments of discovery. Clicking through the minutes and hours of discussion in the editing software – which visually depicts sound on screen as blue spikes of noise and grey gaps of silence – I began to visualise individual thought processes. It was amazing to see how a thought evolved in response to poetry, from tentative exploration into unexpected ideas and developed thinking.


The exhibition also contains drawings based around a Wordsworth poem by all 34 children who participated in the reading groups. A particular favourite is a version of Peggy Ashburner from ‘Repentance’ as a weeping three-eyed monster. On my last week in Grasmere we invited these children into the museum to view their exhibition. They were delighted to see their work on the wall and hear their voices through the headphones. Among the feedback left on the ‘poet-tree’, one child commented: “It was a very good idea to build the expedition.”

Whilst I participated in the museum’s visitor service duties, such as working in the shop and invigilating exhibitions, my favourite time was spent giving tours of Dove Cottage. It was interesting to see the arc of visitor numbers throughout the year: from the quiet days in spring when you might sit beside the fire, reading and chatting between small hourly tours, to the manic summer days of full tours every 10 minutes, before numbers dropped off again in autumn and winter. I saw Wordsworth’s place within the international community – with visitors from across Europe as well as America, China, India, Korea, and Japan. For some Wordsworth was a cultural icon, part of a whistle-stop tour of British culture (calling in on route to Edinburgh from Shakespeare’s house in Stratford), whereas others had a more personal connection with the poet, recalling how they had memorised the Daffodil poem in school, or visited the museum forty years ago.

Overall, I have really benefitted from the year’s ‘behind-the-scenes’ insight into both the Wordsworth Museum and the Lake District National Park. Living at Town End I have met and got to know a diverse group of people who were drawn to work at the museum for different reasons – a love of history or literature, a wish to live and work in the Lake District, the opportunity to develop new skills, or merely because it is something to do. I also discovered a new inclination in myself: when living in cities I have often felt the need to escape to the country, perversely, in Grasmere I sometimes found a thirst for the bustle and variety of the city.

I will take away many strange and memorable experiences, such as the morning I had to pause mid-tour to rescue a toad from the buttery in Dove Cottage, or the day the A591 washed away, as well as dazzling sunsets, and walks, climbs, swims and cycles in all weathers. It has been wonderful to get to know such a range of kind, friendly locals and receive their support, advice and insight. The general local feeling towards Wordsworth is perhaps best captured by a girl’s response to the question; will you read Wordsworth’s poetry in the future?

“Maybe because they are interesting, but I would not study it like you.”


Anna Fleming

Anna Fleming

Before I left Grasmere I delivered a talk on ‘Wordsworth’s Grasmere Characters’. If you would like to find out more about my research and the local people that Wordsworth wrote about, click the following link to view the talk:

Anna Fleming is a third year PhD student with the University of Leeds and the Wordsworth Trust. In 2015 she spent a year based at the Wordsworth Trust, gaining experience in visitor services, curatorial work and outreach activities. She is now based in Leeds where she is teaching undergraduate students and finishing her thesis.